By the Beautiful Sea in Bat Yam

Easygoing, 1960s-style summertime fun awaits at a little place in Bat Yam. Here, you can forget your troubles and enjoy a game of backgammon by the waves, and dine on mullet with a glass of arak.

At the corner of Ben-Gurion and Yerushalayim Streets, an obituary notice for Rahamim ‏(Rahu‏) Calderon, who passed away four months ago, is still attached to an electricity pole. From up above, on the busy road by the Bat Yam boardwalk, you can’t see the bay that’s hidden at the base of the chalk cliffs − it was the headquarters of the late Calderon Snr.’s kingdom. But if you walk down the steps leading to the beach, you can leave behind the noisy city and all your worldly cares.

The first thing you see are dozens of tiny heads, which from afar look like a colony of seals sprawling on the rocks or wading in the calm blue waters of the bay. Standing on a path near the Calderons’ beach restaurant is an old woman in a bathing cap decorated with colorful flowers. No one bats an eye when she calmly slips off the straps of her padded bathing suit to change into a dry dress. Life is too short to waste on unnecessary formalities or worry too much about body image. At 6:30 A.M., the first bathers are already leaving the sea to return home, while others are arriving for a morning swim. All kinds of people − men and women, young and old, veteran Israelis and new immigrants − are strolling on the beach. From Calderon’s kitchen, which looks the same as it did on the day the place opened in the late 1960s, comes the warm aroma of frying omelets. At tables spread out beneath the awning and on the stone balcony sits the gang of beach regulars, a group that was documented in Amia Lieblich’s book “Arak for Breakfast” ‏(in Hebrew, Schocken publishers‏). The members of this group, which has become a family, have been coming to Calderon’s beach every day ‏(“except Yom Kippur”‏) for decades. Summer or winter, in good times and bad, they start the morning facing the Mediterranean. This cleanses the mind of all the nagging everyday pressures and imparts a pleasant feeling of vitality. They drink a little coffee or arak, play a little backgammon, take a dip in the sea, eat, chat, and then return to the daily reality.

“Where’s Johnson?” asks Calderon Jr., with concern about one of his customers. “Where’s your rival? Did he retire?” asks one player, and another wants to know where “the Bulgarian women” have disappeared to. They, too, were part of the regular landscape here.

The sea is the same sea, the interior is the same interior, and the menu is the same menu. Force of habit also works for eating and drinking, and this beach crowd doesn’t need to use many words. The regular customers aren’t asked: What would you like to order? Or: How would you like your coffee? But rather: When do you want your sandwich? Sometimes, routine can be a source of pleasure. It’s easy to praise culinary daring, but sometimes sticking to a familiar menu can be just as poetic. One of the regulars here, a man with a full head of gray hair, has been eating the same omelet, lettuce and tomato sandwich here every morning for the past 40 years. Another always has a full breakfast: two eggs, sunny-side up, finely chopped vegetable salad, cheeses, strawberry jam and store-bought white bread. A third must have his daily shakshuka with merguez sausage and hot peppers, the spicy taste providing a comforting feeling of stability. No scientific or literary study has yet been able to uncover the secret of how such people are able to craft such a perfect balance between simplicity and modern life.

The Greek refuge

The late Ramahim Calderon was born to a Spanish-Jewish family in Larissa, the capital of the Thessaly province in northeastern Greece. In World War II, he joined Tito’s partisans and when the war ended he found his way to Palestine and Jaffa. At first he worked as a hauler for hire in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market. “He and his friends would stand in the market every day and wait for odd jobs,” says his son Itzik. “They would drown their sorrows over their hard life in alcohol and by smoking hashish. A lot of those guys didn’t survive, but the sea saved my father. In the 1960s, he went to work as a lifeguard at the Neveh Yam beach, where the Riviera Club used to be, and so he happened to come to the beach that became his home, and he opened a kiosk-restaurant. He would stand in the kitchen with a glass of arak in hand and make the meze and the shakshuka and everything himself. When it got hot, or when the drink and smoking went to his head, he took the surfboard and paddled out past the breakers to refresh himself.

“When I was 7 we moved to an apartment in Bat Yam, near the beach and the business. Dad lived, ate, drank and sometimes slept by the sea. Mom would sometimes bring him a change of clothes. From the day we moved to Bat Yam, a hundred meters from the beach, Dad would always turn right when he walked out the front door, toward the sea. Never left toward Tel Aviv. Seven or eight years ago I took him to an office in Tel Aviv, where the Germans were giving out reparations. There was a traffic jam on the way and we hardly budged for nearly an hour. Dad said to me, ‘Lucky I didn’t waste my whole life here in Tel Aviv.’”

The charismatic father, who over the years attracted groups of people who like the sea and the good life, bequeathed the business − beach chair rentals and the bar-restaurant − to his deeply suntanned and very courteous son Itzik. Son-in-law Shmulik works together with him. Another son, Shimon, owns the Yasu Saloniki bar in the Jaffa flea market.

In the world that lies east of the beach, daily changes are occurring, but on Calderon’s beach, life remains the same. The Calderon formula for spending entire days by the sea, days that meander between dulled senses and heightened clarity, remains as relevant as ever. You arrive at dawn to breathe in the salty sea air and forget mundane cares as you gaze out at the blue horizon. You drink some black coffee, go into the sea to sway on the waves or swim to the rocks and work up a healthy appetite. You eat breakfast and order a first glass of arak with ice and water. You sip it slowly as the sun rises in the sky, and when the body has a pleasant morning buzz − one that is nothing like the buzz one gets from a nighttime drinking experience − you go back into the water.

Greek music plays in the background, guys still whistle at the girls, and in the afternoon one orders toasted pita with olive oil and hyssop; pickled matjes herring with slices of red onion; homemade hummus; fresh shrimp in olive oil and citrus juice; or a lovely plate of fried red mullet served with hot green pepper, baked heads of garlic, half a lemon and a pitcher of cold beer.

This is what happiness looks like, and thus can a person continue lounging, eating, drinking and bathing in the sea until the wee hours of the next morning. You might not have money to fly to Greece, life may be getting you down, but the Calderon family’s Little Greece is just a short drive away, and what’s life without a Greek island to escape to in these crazy times?